Universal Preschool: Expensive and Ineffective
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is promising bold change, but the centerpiece of his education-reform package -- universal, government-run preschool -- is a looming financial and bureaucratic nightmare. Adding universal preschool to government K-12 schooling may sound like a harmless proposal, but it would strain New York City's education budget while delivering few of the new mayor's promised results.
De Blasio plans to raise taxes by more than $500 million per year to pay for this and other programs. While de Blasio and other government-preschool proponents claim that this additional spending will open the doors to the future, the expanded government program is far more likely to hang like an albatross around the city's neck.
Many of the scholarly articles in support of universal government preschool ignore the costs of creating another municipal bureaucracy -- including teacher salaries and benefits, administrative and regulatory costs, and the negative economic effects of added taxes. Chris Cardiff and I studied a similar proposal in California analyzed by RAND and found that, using RAND's own data and alternative assumptions based on the studies they reference, it is easy to demonstrate that universal preschool generates losses of 25 to 30 cents for every dollar spent. And these losses are calculated before including any of the additional universal preschool program costs that RAND ignored in its analysis.
One unseen cost is the potential of putting private preschools out of business. New York City's private preschools are as diverse as its children, and parents are able to compare preschools and choose the one that best fits their child's needs, learning styles, and social interests. If a universal government-preschool plan were to pass, this cornucopia of options would be replaced by a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy, and private preschool would become a luxury available only to the most wealthy.
And the benefits of universal pre-K touted by proponents are not at all sure to materialize. Past studies of programs like Head Start have found that participation in preschool has no effect on high-school completion, college attendance, or young-adult earnings – all drivers of the financial benefits de Blasio and others promise – and a very limited effect on crime rates. An analysis by the left-leaning Brookings Institution found that universal-preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma had only small effects on participants' later academic achievement. Researchers at Vanderbilt University conducted an in-depth study of children who attended Tennessee's government-administered preschools, and found that by first grade, any benefits provided by the preschools had vanished entirely. In fact, the preschools had an insignificant to slightly negative effect on both academic and social/emotional skills.
New York City is hardly without budgetary woes -- a low-income housing crisis, burdensome pensions, and massive cuts to public library budgets are just a few. Mayor de Blasio has more than enough on his plate already, and he would only be adding to his city's problems by putting another costly and entirely unnecessary entitlement program on the city credit card.
Edward Stringham is the L.V. Hackley distinguished professor for the study of capitalism and free enterprise at the School of Business and Economics at Fayetteville State University and an adjunct scholar with Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.